Even as Alex Iwobi represented the only discernible difference between Arsenal and Fulham on Tuesday, the critics would not be silenced. The end product of a winger with more assists than the excellent James Maddison this season was questioned; the development of a player with fewer than 150 first-team games was mocked.
A first half in which the Nigerian was by far the most dangerous, most effective and most impressive player was merely the exception that proved the rule. Iwobi’s assist for Granit Xhaka’s opener, his clever flick to help set up the Swiss again and his sumptuous near-post cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s header: each was an example of his inconsistency rather than his intelligence.
Opinions have long been formed on Iwobi, the sort which can only be confirmed but never refuted. As easily as his excellent first half was forgotten, a more wasteful and frustrating second stuck in the memory of many fans. His hold-up play, awareness and skill played a crucial role in Alexandre Lacazette’s goal, but did you see that slightly overhit pass for Sead Kolasinac in the 76th minute? Not good enough; never will be.
His partnership with Kolasinac down the left-hand side was the key to victory over a Fulham side who had Arsenal’s defence against the ropes at times. Iwobi, as the only capable dribbler behind the two strikers, was integral in stretching the Cottagers. Yet a handful of sloppy passes after half-time were used as sticks to beat him with. In truth, he simply dropped a little closer to the standard of his teammates.
For a player who thrives on self-belief, it must be increasingly exasperating. Before this season, much of Arsenal’s squad only ever knew the influence and coaching of one manager. Arsene Wenger is one of the sport’s greatest ever minds, but so many players were bound to benefit from a different perspective, a fresh outlook.
The problem was that the squad was never really given a universal clean slate. Many appreciated that certain players would improve under a different manager and a different system, but some were simply considered beyond help. At the age of just 22, Iwobi somehow fell into that bracket: he wasn’t good enough for Wenger’s Arsenal, so what would change under Unai Emery?
“I’m more positive and more confident with the ball,” Iwobi reflected upon his self-improvements in October. “The boss has basically told me that if something doesn’t work, just keep going and don’t dwell on it.
“He’s told me to stop being so critical and to just keep trying no matter what happens, no matter if things don’t go as I want them to.”
Emery might come across as a more authoritative, disciplinarian figure than his predecessor, the more expressive football aficionado. But a different voice has been crucial. The Spaniard might not put an arm around his players, but he encourages them in his own way. To remind them that perfection is not attainable has clearly made a difference.
But some sections of the Arsenal fanbase – as with any team – do not make the same allowances for mistakes. Iwobi was thankfully applauded for his contribution by the home fans when he was substituted with seven minutes remaining; so many others chose to focus on the negatives.
Perhaps that is because the positives were less obvious to the naked eye. He had the fewest touches (24) of any Arsenal player in the first half, yet created the most chances (3). Such quiet efficiency will never please everyone.
While Emery is one of the majority who can appreciate what Iwobi offers, that will not be a problem. His detractors will one day accept and embrace what he is and could be, rather than bemoan what he isn’t.